Rachel Hadas reads


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A section from “Helen” by Euripedes
trans. by Rachel Hadas:

The Chorus laments Helen’s destiny and the tragedy of war.


Nightingale high in a tree so green,
come and sing me a song of pain,
a song for Helen and all the men
slaughtered when Greeks destroyed the town,
a song for Paris’ rapid flight
and the fateful wedding night,
a song of sword and spear and shield
and heroes sent to the underworld.
Widows wailed and cut their hair
in silent houses—no men were there.

Divine or not divine
or something in between:
what mortal man
after long scrutiny
of the mind of god
could undertake to see
and then come back
and somehow make it plain,
all he had understood—
with what impossible luck
leaping the mortal gap?

A song for the swan who was Helen’s sire,
having come to Leda with his desire.
So Helen is the child of Zeus,
yet they attack her all through Greece:
Unjust! Faithless!
Godless! Traitress!

But I can see
no clarity
anywhere among mankind.
Only the mind
of god, I find,
is clear, is free.

And why, oh why do heroes try
to prove their excellence in war?
As if a spear could guard a man
from the onslaught of life’s pain.
Strife will be with us forever
if blood is the criterion,
from our cities vanish never,
just as it ruined Priam’s town,
Helen, discord over you.
Once it still could be
cured, this malady
of hatred, violence, war—
no more, no more.
Disaster’s bolt has struck;
the city walls burn black.
And why, we wonder. Why?
There is no answer. Only misery.